EU-Turkey: Cooperation Without Trust Cannot Solve Migrant Crisis

The EU’s approach not only eroded trust but also undermined the reform process in Turkey. It stopped and eventually went in reverse. On the other hand, the EU found itself with no leverage over Turkey to push for reforms.

Turkey and the EU have a far from perfect relationship, which is very complex and almost devoid of trust. In recent times there was a regression of democracy in Turkey, including a backsliding of civil liberties, freedoms, rule of law. The leadership in Ankara is becoming increasingly authoritarian. Partial reason of it is a lack of strategic investment from the EU towards Turkey: failure to treat Turkey’s EU candidacy in the same manner as other countries’ negotiating membership, and the politicization of Turkey’s EU membership process. A number of EU member states blocked several accession chapters properly for political reasons.

The EU’s approach not only eroded trust but also undermined the reform process in Turkey. It stopped and eventually went in reverse. On the other hand, the EU found itself with no leverage over Turkey to push for reforms.

Despite the fact that Turkey is a strategically important country and long term Euro-Atlantic ally, there was no genuine political will in the EU to reenergize Turkey’s accession process. Instead, the majority of EU leaders – including Angela Merkel – did not seem particularly concerned about the deterioration of ties and just give lip service to relations.

It is the same story with Turkey’s EU visa liberalization process. Despite a promised free movement fifty years ago, and starting a visa-free travel dialogue in 2013, there is broad feeling in Ankara that the EU was not serious and would never allow a visa-free regime. Hence, Turkey is the only EU candidate which does not have visa liberalization with the EU. This was a particularly shortsighted policy, and the EU is now reaping what it has sowed.

When the refugee crisis happened, the EU changed the entire approach. When floods of Syrian refugees began to arrive on EU shores and Turkey became a key component in solving the “problem,” the EU came rushing to Turkey’s leadership offering all sorts of incentives to cooperate, including speeding up the EU accession talks and visa liberalization process, etc. It is not correct to say that Turkey blackmailed the EU. For the first time since the Cold War Turkey has found itself in a powerful positon with leverage over the EU, and Ankara is using it.

If there were no refugee crisis, the chances of Turkey to get visa liberalization would be very unlikely. A humanitarian crisis was needed for the EU to move ahead with something that Turkey should have received a long time ago. Unfortunately, the timing of the “reenergizing” of the EU-Turkey ties is very bad because it coincided with democracy hitting rock bottom in Turkey, as President Erdogan consolidated his power and silenced or removed those who tried to get in his way.

He has turned Turkey into a country run by one man and is concentrated on further strengthening his grip on power by transforming Turkey’s governance from a parliamentary system to presidential “vertical of power”. The successful deal with the EU – including the visa liberalization – is to be used to shore-up support for Erdogan domestically.

The EU finds itself in a tight corner because Erdogan is capable of everything, and no one should underestimate him. If he says that Turkey will not implement the migrants’ readmission agreement if the EU does not deliver visa liberalization by autumn, then he is very likely to do this. The EU will be branded dishonest. The reason why Ankara refuses to amend the anti-terror legislation is, according Erdogan, the on-going terror campaign of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and the Islamic State (IS) which seriously undermines Turkey’s security. However it is a well-known fact that anti-terror legislation is also used in a way to crack down on dissent and criticism to Erdogan and his government.

Turkey is unlikely to change this legislation in the near future, so the EU can either risk a new wave a migrants (which they certainly cannot deal with, particularly Greece and Germany) by insisting Turkey's full following all 72 EU visa liberalization criteria.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the European Parliament has also said it will not ratify the deal if Turkey does not pass all the criteria. Therefore, the EU is pretty stuck between a rock and a hard place. In any case, the EU fears the collapse of the migrant deal far more than Turkey which became now home to at least three million refugees.

In the distant future, Turkey could join the EU, although it is likely to be a very different EU to what we have now. At the same time, Turkey may never become EU member, and that would not be the end of the world either. For many Turks, the most important aspect of the EU accession talks was the process itself which was aimed at strengthening democracy and building a strong, modern and sustainable state with genuine democratic institutions.  

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.